The buzz from late Friday throughout this past weekend was a story originating in the New York Times about a possible confession from Lance Armstrong.
All the cycling news sites picked it up. It even appeared on our local TV evening newscasts. Was this a trial balloon to see how the public might respond to a Lance mea culpa?
Having written about this frequently, I read all of the different accounts, as well as the accompanying reader comments. The purported rationale for an Armstrong confession involves Lance’s desire to compete as an elite level athlete again and the need to have his lifetime ban reduced.
At first glance, it seems like an odd request considering every formal opportunity Armstrong had already been given and not so politely declined. The time to testify on his behalf, confront his accusers, and offer additional information to implicate or build a stronger case against others has officially passed. His ban is in the books.
There also remain the ramifications of moving from adamant denial to public acknowledgement. Civil lawsuits and potential criminal charges await the man who admits to perjury and defrauding the federal government…
Is the ego reward for running a marathon, racing a mountain bike, or competing in an Iron Man worth the risk of losing tens of millions of dollars and going to jail?
Something doesn’t smell right here. Lance was a calculated risk-taker whose downfall didn’t originate from a failed doping control during competition, but rather from an inability to retain loyalty from his co-conspirators. He doesn’t appear to make a move unless the reward outweighs the risk by heavy odds. Are we being asked to believe that Lance is so competitive that the thought of participating only in non-sanctioned, unofficial events is a far worse fate than spending the rest of his life quietly enjoying the wealth he managed to accumulate during his null and void career?
The article in the New York Times was a trial balloon alright, but not for the benefit of his past fans or the growing ranks of Armstrong haters.
Lance has had a couple of months now to contemplate the high price he paid for cheating. While USADA’s Travis Tygart succeeded in bringing Lance down, his efforts to hold Lance’s team director, Johan Bruyneel, accountable for his role in the doping conspiracy have been thwarted repeatedly. Lance may have one card left to play after all…
Johan, Lance is coming for you.
Pat Mc Quaid and Hein Verbruggen, UCI’s Independent Commission may have some new questions for you should Lance oficially meet with USADA and WADA. Anyone who ever benefited directly from riding the Lance Gravy Train will want to brace his or herself for a new level of public scrutiny. That convenient jump onto the Scapegoat Lance Bandwagon may not have been as clean and simple as previously thought.
As Joe Lindsey stated in Bicycling’s Boulder Report, a Lance Armstrong confession won’t really matter unless it is “whole, honest and freely given.” I tend to agree with that statement, although there are many that will say that any plea bargain offered to Lance in exchange for his testimony will raise suspicion about his truthfulness. Fair enough. Many feel that way about Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, as well as all the other teammates who were offered a plea bargain for testifying against Lance.
But what if Lance does more than validate the allegations already made against Bruyneel?
What if Lance can show a willingness by the UCI to repeatedly turn a blind eye to apparent doping violations? That he, in fact, received preferential treatment because of the attention he drew to the sport? That everyone involved from the race promoters to the broadcasters to the non-endemic sponsors knew that this was just another bubble that they were still willing to exploit before it eventually burst?
A whole, honest and freely given confession that both explains the real motive for cheating and details a system that was ripe for exploitation could actually change the future course of professional cycling.
When I began my series of posts about Armstrong back in February 2012, my main concern was not with Armstrong himself, but with the public conflating the activity of bicycling with professional bicycle racing. I was genuinely worried that all cyclists would be judged by the actions of one cyclist (since that never happens with motorists in traffic). In this case, thankfully, I appear to be wrong.
Lance isn’t being judged as a cyclist, but rather as a celebrity. A type of individual whom we both admire – competitor, survivor, underdog, champion, and philanthropist – and despise – cheater, manipulator, liar, and fraud. He has become a tragic hero. An archetype. Just another character in yet another morality tale for all mankind.
As cyclists and fans of bicycle racing, we need to extract ourselves from the controversial story, set aside our personal opinions of Lance, and even look beyond the renewed focus on doping in sport.
Professional bicycle racing doesn't have a doping problem, it has an equity problem.
Velonews has been examining professional bicycle racing in an in-depth and thoughtful manner since USADA’s Reasoned Decision has been made public. It has taken on the ethics of cheating and the need for better education with young athletes. It has published the history of unionizing baseball players in the mid-60s and drawn parallels with the plight of today’s professional riders. It has asked the tough questions of UCI’s Pat Mc Quaid. It has even delved into the history of doping in sport and the alleged corruption that enables it. I highly recommend reading each of these articles and following continual developments on Velonews.
Prior to the Velonews series, too much emphasis had been placed on zero-tolerance for doping without addressing the underlying motivation to dope. Doping historian, John Hoberman, put it very succinctly in response to a questionnaire from Velonews:
"... I will not hesitate to express my own view that scaling down the financial incentives (and thus the business opportunities) in cycling will be part of any solution that works. You can’t keep the old business model that pressures and scapegoats cyclists and transform cyclists’ attitudes toward doping at the same time."
Ironically, the solution to the doping problem and the challenge of growing the sport internationally share a common denominator; equitable revenue sharing. Until the elephant in the room is acknowledged, true reform of the sport can’t even begin to occur.
Lance Armstrong was once one of our sport's greatest icons. Now, he’s the poster boy for all that is wrong with it.
Lance has the opportunity to step to the podium and not only acknowledge his own misdeeds, but expose the system that encouraged, enabled, and rewarded the tactics he employed. He can become a true champion for cycling.
Here's to hoping the rumors are true...
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Keep riding and be safe!